It wasn’t until the release of fourth record Palo Santo in 2006 that people began to take Shearwater seriously. The album’s success and consequent deluxe re-release paved the way for American vocalist and guitarist Jonathan Meiburg to continue crafting records which allowed the former Okkervil River man to explore his interest in the natural world and ornithology in particular. 2016’s Jet Plane and Oxbow is a very different kind of record. The Guardian recently wrote about an artistic silence that seems to have engulfed the music industry regarding it’s ability to craft the protest song, yet Sheawater’s ninth album is acutely aware of current global anxieties and develops the themes from previous material to create an incredible record that strives to make some sense about the world we live in and particularly the position of Meiburg’s home country within it. The ‘protest’ element translates to a more aggressive sound on record and the full house in Manchester tonight are eager to experience the new direction Jonathan Meiburg has taken his band.
Prior to Shearwater’s headline slot, the Night & Day Cafe provides a warm welcome to Texas duo Cross Record who perform a bewitching set of darkly hypnotic songs that enthrall the early arrivers. Finely crafted vocals float mournfully around unorthodox percussive elements and bullish guitars compliment the portentousness, occasionally puncturing the uneasy calm with distinct threats of violence that eventually drift of menacingly. The claustrophobic stage enhances the seductive qualities of the music, making for a hugely satisfying experience.
The cover of Shearwater’s new record depicts a multi-coloured house of cards and tonight the stage is decked out with a range of tall fluorescent lamps re-creating the primary colours from the album. As the band emerge to the strains of Prime, the lamps are blazing and contribute to the epic canvas of the song which establishes the dynamic of the band and the presentation of much of tonight’s material. Luscious synths are counter-balanced by driving beats, aggressive guitars and that voice, which is one of the most distinctive and satisfying in the business today.
Filaments follows and very easily becomes one of the live highlights of the year so far. With the lights fading, the band become sinister silhouettes on a stage now bathed in an angry red hue. Stephanie Power’s bass leads the charge and Josh Halpern’s drums join forces in animalistic fashion before the thrilling vocals complete the utterly immersive experience. It is a soaring highlight and the infectious energy is maintained meticulously with A Long Time Away. It is fair to say that the opening three track salvo of tonight’s show is one of the most thrilling and absorbing live experiences I have had the pleasure of witnessing in a while.
Although we are reminded of earlier records intermittently with Rooks, Seventy-Four, Seventy-Five and the incredibly affecting You as You Were, the evening belongs to Jet Plane and Oxbow. Any doubts that the evening has peaked too soon quickly evaporate with the atmospheric brilliance of Quiet Americans, Wildlife in America and the anthemic Radio Silence. Meiburg has certainly surrounded himself with a band of real quality and your eyes and ears are drawn to the delightful layers provided by a band clearly at the top of their game.
The front man provides concise context to several tracks during the evening, confirming the protest element of much of the new record, and during a brief anecdote about his recent travels he explains his renewed passion for David Bowie’s record Lodger. The album became the soundtrack to his journey and it was always his intention to incorporate songs from this record in to the show. There is an operatic drama to Meiburg’s vocals which are actually very similar to Bowie and there are certainly Eno-esque characteristics to his material so the adoration comes as no surprise. It is suitably fitting therefore that Move On and Look Back in Anger become a passionate reminder of the great man in his absence and conclude this riveting performance in ardent style.
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Review and Photos by Iain Fox | @IainFoxPhoto